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William Whyte (Somerville, MA)

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Does Anything Eat Wasps?: And 101 Other Questions (New Scientist)
Does Anything Eat Wasps?: And 101 Other Questions (New Scientist)
by "New Scientist"
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Science meets Trivia! The result -- Trivience!, 23 Jan 2006
The Last Word column in New Scientist is based on the same idea as the Guardian's Notes and Queries -- readers write in with questions, other readers write in with answers. It's all very pre-Wikipedia but enjoyable. You'll discover that there is no such thing as cellulite; that the green stuff in potato skins that you were always told not to eat is solanine, a relative of deadly nightshade, and that washing them and storing them in sunlight at 16 C causes the solanine levels to quadruple every 24 hours; what would happen if you played bagpipes in a helium-filled room; and that many, many things do in fact eat wasps.
With my physicsy background and inability to tell apart terms ending in "yme" or "oze", I was most interested by the physics and behavioural sciences questions, such as the ongoing argument about whether why birds fly in a V is a physics or a behavioural science question. And I was startled that one respondent claimed that if the moon were to suddenly vanish it would cause "wild swings in the Earth's rotational axis, from a position almost perpendicular to the ecliptic plane to being almost parallel to it." How would that happen?
Anyway, another enjoyable read. Would definitely live on the bookcase in the toilet if we had one.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling
by Gideon Defoe
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable candyfloss, 21 Jan 2006
Gideon Defoe's sequel to The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (which I haven't read). A good funny read, somewhat in the Lemony Snicket gothic vein but a bit more burlesque. The pirate captain foolishly purchases the fanciest pirate ship in the yard and as a result the pirates have to turn to increasingly desperate ways of making money such as treasure hunting, putting on a Vegas show, and actual pirating. A "Learn More About..." section in the back suggests ways you can help yourself if you, too, take on unmanageable debt. I actually liked the incidental gags more than the main humorous thrust of the book -- the map in the front showing how the whale evaded the pirates by hiding among tepees in North Dakota, the "Learn More About..." seciton, and the list in the back of 150 non-existent additional books in the series, such as The Pirates! In An Adventure with Rabbits, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Catastrophe Theory, and Back To Pirate Academy, Pirate Captain! vols 1-7.
Weirdly, this is called The Pirates! In An Adventure with Ahab in America. Why?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 2, 2008 6:49 PM BST

The Economist's Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank
The Economist's Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank
by Peter Griffiths
Edition: Paperback
Price: 28.55

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read, 6 Jan 2006
The Economist's Tale is a clunkily-written but still gripping story of corruption, dogmatism and a barely-averted famine in Sierra Leone in 1986. The author, working on food policy for the World Bank and seconded to the Sierra Leonian government, discovers that:
- The country lives mainly on rice (the backup crop, cassava, has all been eaten over the last two years).
- Nobody knows whether or not enough rice is being grown to feed the country (there are two different scientific studies of production that differ by 80%). It's an excellent book. The lessons:
- Economics is all about incentives. No matter how ideal a market solution might be in theory, if the incentives aren't lined up right the market won't work.
- A currency whose liquidity is so small that its value is changed by importing a single expensive car probably shouldn't be floating.
- Corruption is everywhere, and corruption kills. The state electricity company is unreliable, so everyone uses personal, much more inefficient generators, so there isn't enough oil.
- Dogmatism also kills. You can't un-distort a market overnight. There's a lovely moment when a British Conservative starts explaining to the Americans how privatisation isn't really that great an idea.
Recommended to anyone who's interested in development economics, africa, politics, food, globalization, the World Bank, racism, colonialism, and any of the other ways that people end up treating people the way they do. And it has a happy ending!

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